A man and a woman ambush a camel in a sandy, deserted city. There is a third member of the group who is documenting the act with a shaky, handheld camera. “Don’t let it get away…that’s our meal, man!” she whispers urgently. A weapon lands with a dull thud on the camel, and the next shot shows the trio roasting meat over a fire and devouring what was once a camel to their heart’s content. This is followed by a song that mixes Tamil and English lines — “Un mela aasadhaan/ Aanadhu aagatum/ Say to me baby/ Ponadhu pogatum/ Do to me baby” (I desire you/ Let things be / Say to me, baby/ let bygones be bygones/ Do to me baby) — and the group spirals into insanity, laughing ghoulishly as they try to kill each other. But they don’t die.
This sequence from Selvaraghavan’s 2010 fantasy film Aayirathil Oruvan (One in a Thousand) has been the subject of many discussions among fans of the film. What exactly happens here? Is the group intoxicated by camel flesh? Have their exertions thus far driven them over the bend? Or is it the final trap set by the Cholas to stop strangers from entering their secret kingdom in exile?
The Cholas were a dynasty of powerful Tamil kings who ruled for over 500 years. They gained prominence in the 9th century, and expanded their kingdom from southern India to Sri Lanka and even parts of the Maldives. Aayirathil Oruvan, which opens in 1279 AD, is about the decline of this dynasty, and offers a fictional account that places them in the contemporary world as an isolated people.
In Aayirathil Oruvan, the Cholas are under attack from their arch enemies, the Pandyas. A desperate Chola king sends his young son along with his royal advisor and the people of his kingdom to a secret place for safety. The Cholas take with them the fish-headed goddess of the Pandyas, and the latter dynasty vows to bring the goddess back after killing all the Cholas. But they’re unable to succeed in their mission because the Cholas set seven deadly traps along their path that nobody can survive.
Cut to 2008, Indian archaeologists are still trying to find out where the young Chola prince disappeared. But though they make some headway with the clues given by the Pandyas from the past, those who go in search of the secret Chola territory disappear without a trace. When senior archaeologist Chandramouli (Pratap Pothen) also goes missing, Union Minister Veerapandiyan sanctions an expedition, with the help of the Indian army, to find him.
For those familiar with Chola history, this is the first clue that the expedition isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Veerapandiyan was the name of the Pandya king who was killed by Aditha Karikalan, the crown prince of the Chola dynasty. Leading this expedition is Dr Anitha Pandiyan (played by Reema Sen, and yes, the character’s surname is significant), an intelligence officer. She convinces Lavanya Chandramouli (Andrea Jeremiah), daughter of the senior archaeologist who has gone missing, to join them in the journey. A porter named Muthu (Karthi) and his team are hired to carry the load and assist the experts in the mission.
Muthu is the picaresque hero of Aayirathil Oruvan and typical of protagonists in such fantasy films. He’s considered lowly and unworthy by those above him in the social hierarchy; he’s adventurous and thinks more with his heart than his head; he is righteous in intent and actions; and lastly, he’s the chosen one – whose arrival is foretold in a prophecy — though he doesn’t know this.
The title Aayirathil Oruvan comes from M.G. Ramachandran’s 1965 action adventure film which shares themes with Selvaraghavan’s fantasy movie – a strange land with its own rules, an oppressed people awaiting a messiah who will change their destiny, and an outsider hero who forges a new path for them. The famous MGR song ‘Adho andha paravai pola’ also features in the 2010 film, and is staged on a ship as a hat tip to its predecessor.
The expedition takes the group to Min-gua island, near Vietnam – a place that the labourers are reluctant to visit – and trouble begins as they attempt to disembark. The bright blue sea of the daytime transforms into a death trap by night. The island, covered in mist, looks sinister as the boats approach it. Bioluminescent sea creatures attack those who try to disembark. (For its time and budget, the CGI in the film was passable, though the orange, jellyfish-like creatures look distinctly tacky now.) A few men lose their lives in the chaos, and it dawns on Muthu that he has been pulled into an expedition that’s far more dangerous than what he was led to believe. The team needs to get past the seven obstacles established by the Cholas, Indiana Jones style, to succeed.
Among these ‘obstacles’ are the hostile tribal people of the island. It is not clear if Selvaraghavan based these groups on actual tribal people – Tamil cinema, after all, is known for its offensive and caricaturish depictions of tribal groups – but he appears to have been inspired by descriptions of the Sentinelese tribal group. As exoticised as they are in the film, this is one of the few films that notes the arrogance of a mainstream society as it invades tribal lands and their cultures. The Indian army chief in the group and Anitha waste no time in gunning down tribal warriors. In an unsettling moment, the tribal men concede defeat by slitting their own necks for failing to protect the Chola kingdom.
Eventually, in the middle of the high drama, Muthu, Anitha and Lavanya are separated from the others. In sharp contrast to the dense jungle teeming with life, the group now finds itself surrounded by nothing but sand. The empty landscape also signifies how far away from civilization they are, and Selvaraghavan uses several long shots of the desert to establish the isolation. As they roam around hopelessly in the desert, Muthu hilariously hallucinates giant mugs of beer, chicken biryani and roast chicken. There is also an amoral sexual tension within this motley group that was new to Tamil cinema at the time.
Of all the traps that the group encounters, the most exciting is the Nataraja shadow. They can only cross the region safely along the length of the shadow that shows up twice a day over a Stonehenge-like structure they see in the desert. Otherwise, they risk sinking into the sand. The inspiration is clearly from Hollywood Westerns like Mackenna’s Gold, but Selvaraghavan links it to Chola history with the Nataraja shadow. (The Cholas were devout Shaivites.)
But, when the group finally discovers the Cholas, they’re a far cry from their illustrious past. Selvaraghavan imagines them as a barbaric people ruled by a despot (Parthiban) in a land where it does not rain. They have blackened faces; they perform human sacrifices and conduct cruel, gladiatorial contests. The people seem frenzied and unstable. They live in a dark, cavernous underground realm with a single water source. An ancient prophecy, told through cave paintings, predicts the arrival of a messiah who will take them back to their homeland, but the people have lost hope that such a day will ever come.
While the Cholas have usually been glorified in Tamil popular culture, Selvaraghavan breaks the mould to present them in a different light. They are rendered almost sub-human due to the extent of their suffering. It is in this bizarre world with elements of magic realism that Muthu realises his destiny – he has a tattoo of a leaping tiger on his back, the symbol of the Cholas. He is the messiah.
But Anitha – who is actually a Pandya descendent – stakes claim as the true messiah and succeeds in fooling the Chola king. By the time he realises his mistake though, the Pandyas under Anitha’s leadership organise themselves for battle, and the crude weapons of the Cholas are no match for the former’s modern equipment.
Some fans of the film have read the final sequence in Aayirathil Oruvan to be an allegory of the struggles of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, considering the importance given to the tiger symbol (also the symbol of the LTTE), the attack by the army on the Tamil people, the enslavement of the Chola king, the human rights violations in the camp where they’re taken, and the lyrics of the songs ‘Pemmane’ and ‘Thaai Thindra Manne’. Notably, the civil war in Sri Lanka had ended just a year before the film was released.
In the end, though the Pandyas prevail over the Cholas, Muthu fulfils the prophecy by escaping with the Chola king’s son to his homeland.
Previously known for his coming-of-age romance dramas and gritty gangster films, Aaiyirathil Oruvan was a leap of faith for Selvaraghavan, and it took him 263 days to complete its shoot. Since it is set in the jungle and the desert, the crew travelled to the Chalakudy forest in Kerala and later to Rajasthan. Parts of it were also shot in Hyderabad’s Ramoji Film City.
Though the movie was criticised for its overlong first half, the not-so-great CGI, lip sync issues (particularly Reema Sen), and the plot that many found confusing at the time, it has since acquired a cult following. The film was shot on a budget of Rs 18 crore – making it one of the most expensive Tamil films of its time – and it did reasonably well at the box-office, making around Rs 25 crore. The dubbed Telugu version became even more popular, earning Karthi a new market for his films.
In 2021, Selvaraghavan announced that he was making a sequel with his brother Dhanush in the lead. The Chola prince, Selvaraghavan promised, is set to return in 2024. And hopefully, with a bigger budget and better CGI, Aayirathil Oruvan 2 should be an improvement on its flawed yet audacious original.